[From the archives. Originally published October, 1990.]
The Waters of Baptism
In this kind of study it must be admitted that certainty is difficult, if not impossible, to obtain. But if probability be the guide of life, I am of the opinion that the way forward is tolerably clear here.
This discussion on baptism is based on several premises. First, man’s relationship with God is covenantal; second, that the visible covenant cannot be equated with salvation; third, that there is a continuity between the regulations (law) of the Old and New Covenants unless the New Testament teaches otherwise; fourth, that baptism replaces circumcision as the sign of the covenant; fifth, that while the sign of the covenant has changed in the New Testament era, there is no corresponding New Testament teaching that indicates the recipients of baptism should not be the same as those who received the covenant sign in the Old Testament. This means household baptism, including infants.
An embarrassing fact of history for the Baptist scholar is the practice of household (infant) baptism in the early church. For about the first 200 years of New Testament Christianity the early Church practiced infant baptism. This indicates that at the time when the Church was under the influence of the apostles and those who received first hand teaching from the apostles, baptismal practice was contrary to the teaching of modern day Baptist theology.
The modern mind is influenced, to some extent, by the ideas from surrounding culture. Progress, or, as some would argue, evolution, is a fact of life. Thus, it is often easy to slip into the idea that we in the twentieth century have developed a better understanding of theology than those Christians who were around several centuries ago. After all, we have Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, or John Wesley, or some other great figures of history; or we have the Westminster Confession of Faith which the early church did not possess. This is arrogance, not scholarship. Yet it is implicit in some of the arguments thrown around in the baptism debate.
Hence the argument of Baptist scholar, G.R. Beasley-Murray, as he attempts to answer the question: “If the baptism of infants was not instituted by the leaders of the primitive Church, how is its rise and universal adoption among the Churches to be accounted for?” Notice his statement that infant baptism was a universal phenomenon. But it is the reply he gives to this question that interests us: “A definitive answer cannot be given to the question, or it would have been supplied long ago.” This statement is all too common among Baptist scholars, whose blinkered viewpoint does not permit them to accept that the indication of household baptisms in the New Testament, parallelling household circumcisions in the Old Testament, is a clear explanation of the universal adoption of infant baptism. It is as if this argument does not exist in the mind of Mr. Beasley-Murray.
- G.R. Beasley-Murray Baptism in the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1962), p. 94.↵back
- In this essay, the word “Baptist” refers not to a denomination but a theological belief favouring baptism by immersion of adult believers. I know some would also baptise children, but they refuse to baptise eight-day old infants.↵back
[From the archives. Originally published September, 1990.]
The New Covenant
In the first part of this series on Covenantal Baptism, we briefly surveyed the Old Testament, noting the origin and implications of the covenant. All men, it was claimed, were in covenant relationship with God, either as covenant-breaker or covenant-keeper. The former group would be cursed, while the latter blessed. Moreover, it was noted that it was God who determined which group an individual would be born into, although in adult life each person must confirm his position, by maintaining either his covenant-breaking or covenant-keeping position. Finally, it was observed that the visible covenant cannot be equated with salvation.
In that overview we found that the Old Testament, or Old Covenant, provides the biblical foundation for the New Covenant. It is the relationship between the two covenants that is at the heart of much unnecessary disagreement over Christian theology. When we arrive at the New Testament portion of the Scriptures, the question that arises is this: in what way is the New Covenant different from the Old Covenant?
Any discussion of the relationship between Old and New Covenants cannot proceed until we understand what is meant by the word “new.” It may appear to some fairly obvious that the word “new” simply means “new.” But the fact is, the Bible — that is, the God-inspired Scriptures — have two words that are translated into English as “new,” and the words are not precisely the same in meaning. Moreover, they provide one of the keys that helps us unravel the thorny question of relationship of Old and New Covenants.
In English we use the word “new” in two different senses. We talk about a new baby, or a new house that has been built down the road. When we use the word “new” in these cases we are talking about an object of some kind that is young in age. That is, it has only recently come into existence.
But we also use the same word to talk about things that are not new in existence. Remember the advertisement for a famous brand washing powder, Rinso? Clothes, sparkling bright, were displayed with the caption, “New Rinso.” In this case, we are not talking about an object that is necessarily young in age. We are talking about an object that is older, an article that has had something done to it so that there is a difference about it. We call this item “new” without any hesitation. From the context we know what others mean when they use the word “new,” and we have little trouble in handling these two related, but different, concepts. Thus, we have an old car that gets a re-spray job, and we call it a “new” car. Or, we buy a second-hand house and we refer to it as our “new” home.
[From the archives. Originally published August, 1990.]
Old Testament Origins
In the year 871 A.D., a young king came to the throne in a land torn by warfare and strife. At the age of 21, this young man assumed an enormous responsibility. His country had been invaded and almost completely overrun by people who did not believe in the God that he believed in. They were pagans, intent on pillage, rape, and living off their conquered foes. They were barbaric parasites, living off the economic productivity of their captives who became their slaves. The invaders had sailed in from the north in their long ships, and their military might was such that none had been able to halt their quest for domination of foreign lands. Steadily they encroached on more and more of this young king’s territory, slowly establishing their rulers in the provinces — governors who would maintain allegiance to the invaders.
This young king, Alfred by name, who inherited only a fraction of what was once a large and prosperous land, had other ideas. He believed that this foreign invasion was the handiwork of the God of the Bible, who was inflicting punishment on the people of his nation for their disobedience to the moral requirements found in the Holy Scriptures. Thus, when he inherited the throne, he began a strange course of action. Once he had established that he was unable to beat the invaders militarily, he began a tactic which, to the modern world, appears to be bizarre for one under siege in his own land. Instead of planning a military strike against the invaders, he began a task of Christian reconstruction to rebuild the remains of his nation in terms of biblical law.
First, he searched abroad for biblical scholars who would come to what remained of his country and teach the people the Holy Scriptures. He built churches and monasteries, and insisted that the people be taught and educated in the ways of God Almighty.
Second, he urged that the Scriptures should be translated into the national language. Since this young king was apparently unable to read or write, he imposed upon himself the task of mastering the skills of literacy so that he too could participate in the translation work of the Scriptures. Before he died, he left a legacy of translated Psalms and a choice selection from the early church fathers for his people to read in their native tongue.